November 13, 2007

Norman Mailer died around four thirty Saturday morning New York time. Unlike his tumultuous life, his end was very peaceful. I spoke to his oldest son Michael who called me literally a second after the Sunday Telegraph did to inform me of his death. “I gave dad a drink and he smiled,” said Michael. I asked him if it was an alcoholic one and Michael said, “Just a little rum.”
He was surrounded by all of his nine children, his wife Norris Church, a sister and her children. He asked to be buried in Provincetown, Mass., where he’s kept a house on the water for close to forty years.  It will be a strict family affair early next week, and then, always according to Michael Mailer, “a real big memorial where every one of his buddies will be invited.” Now for the man I’ve known for almost fifty years.

I met him in the early Sixties during a riotous party in his house in Brooklyn. I was in my twenties, had read The Naked and the Dead, but knew I was out of my league the moment I walked in his three story family house overlooking the waterfront and facing New York harbour. The place was full of hipsters, downtown types whom one recognised only from the movies, and most of them were smoking dope.  I had been taken there by Sadruddin Khan, the uncle of the present Aga Khan and a very learned person. He told Mailer, who was holding court, that I was a boxer. Norman immediately perked up—and threw a left hook. I was startled and sort of flinched. Mailer laughed. “You ain’t no boxer, kid.” There were also a lot of pale gray anxious young men hanging around. Norman’s Praetorian Guard, so to speak. I was told they were writer wannabees who followed the great man everywhere he went, even in his own house.

His leonine head was Norman’s most striking feature. He postured about like a much taller man than he was, but he had very kind blue eyes and a halo of brown curls that with time would turn into pure white giving him the patriarch’s signature look that I suspect he secretly craved. I only saw him occasionally after that but I called him, having been blown away by reading An American Dream. The protagonist, Rojak, I believe,  kills his wife by throwing her out of the window and then proceeds to bugger the maid. For 1965 this was strong stuff. His two Pulitzer prizes followed in the Seventies and I would run into him at Elaine’s, the uptown dump where all the writers, hacks, film stars, tough guys and cops hung out. But it was Pentonville that sealed my friendship with Norman, as if I had done something heroic having spent three months there for cocaine possession. The moment I emerged and flew to New York, Mailer and Norris— his wonderful and last wife out of the six—came to dinner. Norman was excited to talk to me. What was jail like? What were the cons like? How tough were they? What really went on? When I told him how pathetic, weak, cowardly, ignorant and boring my fellow jailbirds were, it was as if I had stabbed him in the back. Being extremely intelligent and quick, he knew I was telling him the truth, and was extremely disappointed to hear it.

Mailer’s idea of “the white negro,” the tough guy hipster who bucks the system, was personified by the criminal, thrown into jail by a heartless capitalist state for cutting corners in order to feed his children. He was some romantic, that Norman, and I hated to do it to him. Like many geniuses, he was also quite mad.

One month later he rang me and we went to Indochine, a downtown restaurant owned by a Vietnamese friend of ours. He had been told by a mutual friend that I was blocked and could not write my prison opus so he took the time to give me advice. “All you have to do is not get up from your chair,” he said. “The energy from the earth will come up through your anus and fire your brain….” When I told him that it was an old trick, trying to keep a writer focused by not moving around the house, he got angry. “I tell you, the thing comes up from the bowels of the earth and up through your…..”  He then proceeded to encourage me throughout the evening. For the most famous writer in America, the heavyweight champion of American letters, as he famously called Hemingway, it was a very nice thing to do. He had nothing to gain as he didn’t like yachts, chalets, chic parties and other pleasures I could have offered him.

On New Year’s Eve 1989, I gave a party in New York for some 500 people at Mortimer’s, the then “in” place of the city. Norman and Norris were my guests of honour. So he took me aside and slowly, patiently and gently taught me the art of head butting, something Norman would challenge people with when he didn’t wish to fight them with his fists, mostly those he was angry with but nevertheless liked. When I asked him about brain damage he looked nonplussed. “But writers have stronger heads than normal people.”

I continued to see him and went to Mexico for his son Michael’s marriage three years ago. By then he was using crutches but would sit down with us and with that great voice of his pronounce the American people DUMMMMBB, for having re-elected Bush. Michael Mailer and I by then had become very close, and Norman’s blue eyes would twinkle and he’d make fun of us. The last time I saw him it was for a literary meeting and fun raiser with Norman up on the stage being interviewed. I had just returned from winning a gold medal in the Judo world championships (70 years and older class) in Miami. Norman was talking to Harry Evans and asked Michael to bring me around. He never mentioned the judo but asked me whether I would exchange “one punch in the mouth, but I go first.” He then burst into laughter and hugged me. This was his way, tough and also soft. I am happy he died surrounded by his loved ones and that he did have a little rum in his drink, but his passing is really the end of a great era of tough guy writers who knew what they were writing about. As I finish these words I feel a bit blubby, something the great Norman would never allow. Tough guys, after all, don’t cry.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


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